The Epiphany of Joy, Chapter 16: Joy in Suffering (4 of 4)
In America, we’re raised to be independent—it’s our national hegemony, our motto, our pride, our mission statement; we worship the self-made man, we idolize independence. Our programming tells us asking for help is a sign of weakness, especially for men—just look at all the jokes about men not stopping and asking for directions. What does that ever get us except a disgruntled wife and a car running on fumes out in the middle of nowhere! But life is all about suffering, and that suffering ultimately leads to joy, pure joy, joy unfettered, the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Why? Because God is our Comforter, and our suffering and our weakness allows His full Glory to be manifested through our trials.
I love the Apostle Paul’s confession in his Second Letter to the Corinthians regarding his thorn. “In order to keep me from becoming conceited,” Paul confessed, “I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:7b-9a). Paul never elaborated about what his thorn actually was, but whether it was a speech impediment, an adversary, or bone spurs in his feet, he pressed on in his mission to preach the gospel despite his affliction. Despite the thorn, Paul persevered. Despite the thorn, Paul became one of the most influential early Christian leaders in church history. Despite the thorn, he prevailed because God’s power triumphed over Satan’s attempt to extinguish the fire of the Spirit in Paul’s heart. As I mentioned at the beginning of this book, joy is despite . . . .
This anecdote about Paul is one of my favorites because I can relate to it so well. When suffering with depression and spasmodic dysphonia after my first wife left me, I prayed for God to take away the physical and mental manifestation of the evil pervading my life, especially because it seriously affected my job, my pursuit of writing, and my personal life. But in the throes of my suffering, in the pit of depression, in the rage, the whining, the wall pounding, I continued to clench an idol I didn’t realize had so much power over me: pride. It wasn’t until God purged out that sin, as He did Job’s, that my heart was opened to the deeper healing He intended for me throughout the entire experience.
When I finally released pride and gave in to Daddy’s discipline, compassion, and comfort, I began to heal spiritually, mentally, and physically. For six years I relied on His grace and His sufficiency, and at the end of those six years He released me, seemingly overnight, from my thorn, my messenger of Satan. “It is amazing how full Scripture is of comfort for mourners,” C.H. Spurgeon preached, “because the Lord’s objective is that the mourner be comforted.”[i] Even though most of the time I didn’t realize it, God held my hand throughout that entire ordeal, He pressed my head against His bosom, He sang songs to me and held me tight. He comforted me.
It’s funny, I’m an engineer by education, a man well-versed in mathematics, from simple arithmetic to calculus and differential equations. Even though I struggled with it during high school, I comprehend math, I understand numbers, I “get” mathematical concepts given enough time. I’ve lived in the world of mathematics the vast majority of my half-century existence, but it wasn’t until I was 49 years old and homeschooling my daughter when I learned that math is the study of patterns. Doh! No one had ever explained it to me that way before. And here it was, laid out in plain English in a first grade homeschool curriculum! It was a true epiphany—if a teacher had explained that to me back in say, oh, first grade, I may have done even better at it.
And with that revelation I put two and two together and arrived at this: our experience of life is much like mathematics. God has laid out before us a challenge called life here on earth. From the beginning—even before the beginning—He graciously planted in our hearts a specific pattern to which we’re drawn: His will, our dream. He desires for us to live out that dream from the start, but the antagonists—other people, our pride and selfishness, Satan, the world at large—get in the way. And so we suffer. But God doesn’t give up on us. In fact, He allows us to go through those challenges to discipline us, teach us, hone us, and toughen us up. As the Apostle Paul assured in his letter to the Romans, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
So for those of you who are mathematically inclined, here’s a little equation I came up with to explain the meaning of life:
∑ Suffering(time) = JOY!
For those who don’t give a whit about math, it all comes down to this: when put into the proper frame of reference, the sum of all of our suffering over the timespan of life here on earth equates to joy. Factorial!
When I asked Zac Chapman what keeps him going, his response was inspiring: “I believe that God has, as Dad said, fully restored me, so I look forward to that day and I work toward it. But I want to be sure I’m happy where I’m at, not just looking forward to that day, but that I’m content where I am. And being content in doing that gives me hope, being happy where I am now.”
And that’s something we can all count on.
[i] Spurgeon, C.H. “The Oil of Joy for Mourning,” Sermon #3341. Spurgeon Gems & Other Treasures of God’s Truth. 13 February 1913. Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit. 19 June 2013. http://www.spurgeongems.org/vols58-60/chs3341.pdf.
Copyright ©2014 by David C. Hughes